By Reihana Mohideen
AUCKLAND — A new alliance is forming that could totally transform the character of New Zealand politics. Delegates to the NewLabour Party's second national conference, held here over the October 25-28 long weekend, voted unanimously for the principle of an electoral pact between the NLP, the Green Party, the Democrats and the Maori national rights movement Mana Motuhake.
The NLP conference, held at a Maori community centre in a working-class suburb of South Auckland, was attended by around 140 delegates. The decision to participate in an electoral alliance was one of the key proposals to come out of the conference.
The initiative for an alliance came from the Greens and the Democrats. A meeting of representatives from the four parties decided to take the proposal back to the membership for discussion.
Subsequently the Democrats, whose roots lie in the old Social Credit Party, authorised the formation of an alliance at a national conference.
Mana Motuhake representatives are also committed to the alliance and are confident that their conference in November will endorse the proposal.
A big majority of the Green Party's national council voted to support the formation of an alliance. The Greens are also in the process of conducting a straw vote of their membership.
Another meeting has been set for December 1 at which the intention is to get the alliance up and running. While the Greens have their national conference scheduled for May 1992, NLP members report strong support for the alliance among the rank-and-file members of the Green Party.
NLP National Council member Matt Robson, who reported to conference on the discussions between the parties, explained that there was very little disagreement "on the common economic and social goals". Differences that do exist "aren't obstacles that cannot be overcome".
"The question is how to make it work. There is more danger in standing still", he said. He described the alliance as the "most important step taken since the foundation of the party".
Jim Anderton, the NLP parliamentary leader, explained that in meetings held around the country (including a meeting in Auckland attracting around 700 people), there was a lot of support for the idea of an alliance. All the alliance parties will maintain their independence and "will be equal partners", he said.
Matt McCarten, who was elected party president, told Green Left Weekly that "each party brings quite a different culture and support base to the alliance. The NLP's membership and electoral constituency are among low income workers, pensioners and the unemployed. Two-thirds of the membership of the NLP are the rs.
"The activists in the Green Party are what I would describe as the socially concerned middle class. This is also its support base according to poll analysis. A lot of young people are also attracted to the Greens."
According to a recent poll, the views of most Mana Motuhake supporters would be described as "left of centre". The Democrats' base has traditionally been small business people and small farmers.
According to recent polls, the combined popularity of the alliance parties is around 30%. The alliance also places Mana Motuhake in a very good position to win the four Maori electoral seats from the old Labour Party. Support for such an alliance is also fuelled by New Zealand's first-past-the-post electoral system.
However, "this is not an alliance of convenience, but an alliance around the central issues which will help the working class people in this country", McCarten said. The key minimum program of the alliance is the question of democracy in New Zealand society. This includes a system of proportional representation in parliament and the right to recall parliamentarians.
The thrust of the economic program is to place the control of strategic resources in the hands of the people. According to McCarten, this must be an essential aspect of any program for economic recovery.
Other issues include free education and health, universality of benefits paid through a system of progressive taxation, the care and sustainability of the environment and trade union rights.
The parties have decided to set up two working groups on policy and organisation, which will also work out a mechanism through which alliance candidates will be selected. The NLP's preferred option for candidate selection seems to be joint electoral meetings of all parties.
While the "push for the alliance comes from the bottom" a section of the leadership of the Green Party seems reluctant to proceed with the alliance. "They don't want to be submerged in an alliance because they fear they may lose their individuality", McCarten said.
But membership support for the project is reportedly strong. Already branches of the NLP have formed campaigning alliances with the other three parties in at least five seats where the Greens have their strongest base. A delegate from Taranaki reported that his travel costs to the conference were raised by the alliance parties in his area. They will formally launch the Taranaki alliance in November, he said.
It was apparent that the NLP branches had discussed the alliance proposal in great detail prior to the conference. Confidence ran high about the possibility of the alliance emerging as the "third force" in New Zealand politics, with a real chance of winning a parliamentary majority.
The discussion ranged from branch report backs, queries about alliance policies, suggestions of names for the alliance, to speculation about f the alliance won government. "What if there is a flight of capital out of the country?", a delegate asked. "In such a situation, we must take the New Zealand people into our confidence. We need to get their commitment to fight it", Jim Anderton responded.
On its second day, the conference was addressed by representatives from the Democrats and the Greens.
The conference took place against a backdrop of a deepening economic and social crisis in New Zealand.
The National Party government has continued the free market policies of the previous Labour government. Unemployment benefits have been cut by around 25%. This has pushed increasing numbers into poverty.
Social surveys point to areas where children have only one meal a day. Schools have now started to give out free lunches. Malnutrition-related health problems such as skin diseases are on the increase.
Unemployment is increasing at an alarming rate. The suburb I was staying in witnessed the closure of all the major meatworks in the area. Public transport has been slashed. There is no train service into the city, which is some 15 km away.
The Treasury is run by free market zealots trained at the Harvard Business College, who did their apprenticeships with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They push for a massive reduction in tariff barriers to restructure the economy. Some even claim openly that the country can sustain an economy of only 2 million people and that the other million or more inhabitants will have to find greener pastures overseas.
The NLP, with a membership of around 6000, is the strongest alternative political force in the country. All indications are that it will be the political and organisational backbone of a new alliance.
The party's active membership is well aware of the responsibility the party shoulders. The last two days of the conference were devoted to questions of party building. According to Matt McCarten, who addressed the final session of the conference, "the coming year will be a very active year of party building ... How well we do this will be a mark of our maturity."
"We are the party of the poor", he concluded. "Organisation is our only weapon."